Napoleon's Performance in 1809

Lord Oda Nobunaga

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
5,635
Ontario, Canada
or Why I'm biased towards Napoleon



The war of the Fifth Coalition was masterminded by the Austrians solely (but subsidized with British money). The Russians demonstrated that at best they would remain neutral, the Prussians had no ability to join the war only 2 years after they had been wiped out and the British contributed only in so far as putting up another front in Iberia, promising to open a front in the Netherlands and providing the Austrians with money.

Despite facing defeats in 1797, 1800 and 1805 the Austrians were finally willing to try their hand and see if their cards could hold. They had lost control of Germany and Italy and had no allies on the continent, their armies had only recently been raised and trained and Archduke Charles did not wish to commit his troops even after 4 years and the state was practically bankrupt. They were destroyed and had no authority or prestige and feared revolts within what remained of their state.
In fact the Austrian foreign minister Stadion said "Austria cannot view the Treaty of Pressburg as anything other than a cease fire". Though Kaiser Franz said to the Russian envoy after hearing of the Battle of Eylau "so you have defeated the French, make sure to defeat them a second time and I will declare war myself" basically implying that the Russians were about to get crushed.
Either way Kaiser Franz, most of his courtiers and even his ministers decided that because of Napoleon's troops fighting in Iberia it was time to exploit this and wage war with France. In many ways Napoleon was not at a diplomatic disadvantage as he had previously experienced and would experience in future.

This was indeed a war which saw some of Napoleon's worst mistakes and best moments.
Considering that the French positions were very poor and the fact that the French were also forced to fight within the Iberian peninsula it is surprising that Napoleon was able to reach Vienna in the first place or even fix the situation that he found himself in when he rushed from Paris to the front lines. Though Berthier is often blamed I have not yet decided to what point this is accurate or fair. Regardless the Emperor himself moved to the commander's chair (his horse as was his style) to oversee these events personally and attempt to rectify a terrible situation.

Napoleon was able to redeploy his positions in Germany to face the enemy despite the Archduke having a slight numerical advantage in forces available to him, he did not commit and Napoleon was able to achieve numerical parity and batter the Austrians advancing on both sides of the Danube. In 5 days he was able to win 5 victories and take back all of the territory lost in Bavaria.
With one of the largest armies ever put to the field, even larger than what Napoleon was used to, he was able to coordinate all of these troops fairly well and advance as far as Vienna. Napoleon's strategy was akin to an octopus hitting the enemy everywhere but he did not lose sight of the main theater. Prince Eugene advanced up from Italy, Poniatowski held off the Austrians in Poland and Marmont advanced up from Dalmatia (dealing with their own enemy forces of course). After the Battle of Wagram he also sent invasion columns into Hungary.

In this war Napoleon should have been completely out of his element and this might be demonstrated by various setbacks. However he demonstrated that he could indeed adapt to the circumstances and reality of the situation. His presence literally made the difference if we are to judge from the opening moves of this war. Though we should not denigrate Davout and Massena's contributions nor the powerful resistance and abilities of the Archduke Karl von Osterreich-Teschen who in my opinion was also making mistakes but was also showing one of his best performances. One might infer that both he and Napoleon were struggling to adapt to the situation. Despite the attrition war Napoleon realized that he had a slight advantage in men and resources and exploited it. There was no great battle like Austerlitz or Friedland but he realized that taking such a risk to force such a pitched battle was counter productive.

Even with such great numbers he masterfully coordinated his army and took Vienna before the Archduke even had a chance to defend it. Though this ultimately led to the Archduke taking a strong defensive position east of the Danube the Emperor tried hard to force this river. His intelligence service failed him and he did not wait for further reports and gambled on a fast crossing. The gamble did not pay off and at Aspern-Essling he lost marshal Lannes and marshal Saint Hillaire. It was through their efforts as well as those of Massena that the French managed to survive the impetuous crossing. A great onslaught by Lannes was halted by Archduke Karl von Osterreich Teschen and his subordinates corps under Rosenberg and Hohenzollern.
Despite this failure Napoleon was able to build up two bridges and attempt another crossing which succeeded and was not intercepted by the enemy. He then forced Archduke Karl into a battle on the Wagram plain. After 2 days of savage fighting and a seeming parity the Archduke's advance was halted and Napoleon rolled over their left and center and forcing the Austrians to retreat. Though general Lasalle was lost in this battle. Soon enough Napoleon repeated this at Znaim and eventually signed a peace.

Now in terms of strategy I don't think much can be put against Napoleon. The strategy was almost flawless. Even if it wasn't I would give him extra points for adapting to this attrition war. We should take into account that Napoleon was unable to commit his full force as his forces were also in Iberia. Now the strategy almost led to a standstill around the time of Znaim but this was more due to the distances involved. Even so Napoleon had the clear advantage at this point. He forced an engagement at Znaim which meant that the strategy paid off.

His tactics were very good as well but not the best that they had been.
The movements of the Grand Armee were a little sloppy compared to previous battles. This is mostly seen at Aspern-Essling and Wagram however the French were not wiped out at Aspern-Essling which is a miracle. Wagram was a close call in the first day. When Parisian courtiers were deriding the Austrians Napoleon responded "clearly you were not at Wagram". The tactics employed by the French generals contributed to this for sure. Due to the high cost of these victories I think one would have to give some kind of criticism against Napoleon, as he often receives.

The operations were among the best conducted by Napoleon throughout his career. The only real setback was Aspern-Essling in which the operation failed to have the Grand Armee force the Danube. This was a gamble which Napoleon took almost on a whim, his intelligence services failed him and he did not press for more reconnoitering of the enemy positions or the northern bank of the Danube in front of Vienna. This could have been a massive defeat which ended further French operations. Probably for the first time Napoleon had to deal with physical fatigue which gives us a look at the man behind the operations. Regardless I think pretty much every one of Napoleon's operations succeeded (but to different degrees).

In all honesty I think that 1809 did not have as many setbacks as 1807 in my opinion. 1806 had good operational maneuvers but it was a different strategic context than 1809. 1807 saw setbacks at Golymin, Pultusk, Eylau, Guttstadt and Heilsberg. While some of these maneuvers contributed ultimately to the Battle of Friedland those were a lot of setbacks prior to Friedland. By comparison the only real setback suffered by Napoleon in 1809 was Aspern-Essling, if we exclude some of the setbacks suffered by Eugene in Italy. Maybe Napoleon failed to accomplish all of his maneuvers and operational goals in 1809 but they were not necessarily comparable to the few failures of December 1806 and much of 1807 (up to June).

This was for the most part an excellent campaign when it came to the results. He could have done better in the individual tactical engagements sure but even his strategy which forced Charles to overextend himself around the Danube worked perfectly. In fact Napoleon purposely stayed on the left bank of the Danube until the time was right. Meaning that Charles' forces were basically trapped in Italy or on the right bank of the Danube but split by the geography in Moravia and Hungary. Napoleon could have basically gone into Hungary or Moravia at his own discretion because Charles had no way to launch an offensive by this point. In other words Austria had been crushed, undermined and humiliated once again.